There are some movies you may feel you have to see twice to understand. There are also some movies that become more puzzling, not less, the more often you watch them. Memoria, the latest from Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, starring Tilda Swinton as a Scottish woman temporarily displaced in the jungles of Colombia, may be one of the latter—though that’s a recommendation, not a deterrent. Anyone who claims to fully grasp every element of Weerasethakul’s movies—like the haunted reverie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or Tropical Malady, a lush dream romance—is blowing smoke, and should be avoided. His pictures weave a spell that lingers somewhere in the space between brain and spirit, like a song you heard before you were born. They’re so vividly filmed that it’s easy to recall and describe their imagery, but once you start heading down that road, you find yourself lapsing into synesthesia: how, for example, can a tree be alight with crackling radio signals? But those kinds of seemingly contradictory apparitions are standard in Weerasethakul’s world. His movies are a kind of wide-awake anesthesia. You emerge from them knowing exactly where your body has been, but unsure of where your spirit has wandered.
That’s true of Memoria as well, though even seasoned Weerasethakulites may find parts of the film unusually bewildering. (The movie is receiving a rolling release in theaters across the United States, beginning April 1. A list of the locations where you can see it can be found here.) Swinton’s character, Jessica, lives in Medellín, where she runs some sort of flower-marketing business; it’s hinted that she recently lost her husband and is grieving. In our first encounter with her, we watch as she’s awakened by a strange, hollow thudding sound, which she at first believes to be the noise of construction going on next door. Later, though, the sound recurs while she’s in the company of others, and it becomes clear that only she can hear it.
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The movie follows the trail of that mysterious sound as it traces Jessica’s comings and goings and random encounters. Her sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke), lives in Bogotá, and is suffering from a mysterious ailment; Jessica visits her in the hospital as she awakens from deep slumber, and we can feel the heaviness of weird dreams in the room. Later, as Jessica seeks to solve the mystery of the persistent, eerie sound, she meets with a handsome young sound engineer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego), who tries to help her identify it. There’s a hint of flirtation between the two, or maybe it’s just a kind of simpatico kindness. But when Jessica later returns to the sound studio where Hernan works, none of the other employees there have heard of him. It’s as if she had summoned him from a reverie, perhaps from the same source of that melancholy, metallic thud that haunts her.
Is the mystery of that sound ever solved in Memoria? Yes and no. This is the first film Weerasethakul has made outside of Thailand, with non-Thai actors, and Swinton’s presence is likely to attract a new audience. She’s perfect for the film’s aura of solemn thoughtfulness: Jessica is a seeker, a kind of pilgrim in this verdant but not wholly welcoming jungle world. (The beauty and secretiveness of the Amazon rainforest permeate the film.) In the movie’s key scene, and its greatest one, Jessica meets a man—also named Hernan, but much older than the sound engineer, and played by Elkin Díaz—who spends his days cleaning fish by a brook. He has never left the town where he lives, he tells her. “I remember everything. So I try to limit what I see. That’s why I never watch movies or TV.”
Through this man, Jessica connects with both the past and the unknowable present, with trauma that she herself has not experienced but which seems to be planted deep in the land around her. She also comes to understand the sound that follows her everywhere. But the imagery accompanying that discovery is best left undescribed—it’s one of the film’s most visually poetic surprises. Memoria is moody and perplexing, even in the context of Weerasethakul’s others, and if you’re a neophyte, it may not be the best one to start with. But even so, its circuitous, misty trails of logic leave you feeling as if you’ve been entrusted with some kind of nebulous treasure; it’s easy to become pleasurably lost in speculation about what it all means. This is a film about how memories manifest themselves and stretch across populations, about both the concrete and elusive nature of sound, about the secrets of the universe that we’ll never be able to unlock. There’s a lot to unpack in just one viewing, or even six. But like all of Weerasethakul’s movies, Memoria leaves you feeling like an out-of-body adventurer, tethered by only a slender thread of consciousness to the physical form in the movie seat.
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